Hubris, apple trees, and international development

The human propensity to see one’s own point of view as superior to others has inspired fascist movements and colonialist efforts throughout history as well as the more every day, mundane persuasive interactions. The ability to perspective-take and genuinely empathize with the mindset of another, truly appreciating another’s point of view, is a rarer ability than it should be. In fact, the ability to understand that everyone’s perspective, in some way, comes from a place of truth is even rarer. This ability is often only found in the best diplomats, moderators, negotiators, and prophets.

But what does perspective-taking, fascism, and prophethood have to do with international development? Perhaps a lot more than might appear.

The effectiveness and sustainability of international development efforts has often been called into question, particularly relative to Africa. Weak perspective-taking and a lack of appreciation of the “other” may lie at the heart of why development is not achieving its expected results. Since the agricultural sector is often seen as a key driver for development, an agricultural metaphor will be used to further elucidate the core problem with international development and its potential solution.

For a seed to grow into a healthy plant that yields fruit the appropriate environmental conditions are needed. Each plant has its own requirements for nutrients, soil type, rainfall, sunlight, temperature, etc. For example, the conditions required to grow a mango tree will not be the same as those required to grow an apple tree. Plants, like people, are highly contextualized. A plant that may thrive in Africa may not be able to grow and survive in France, and vice versa. Our way of thinking, working, and living in America may not work in Africa, and vice versa. The world is made up of so many unique and complex ecosystems – each one localized, contextualized, interdependent, and highly complicated. One must be prudent if considering stepping into this type of teeming system where unintended consequences might abound like ripples in a pond – even awakening potential predators.

A plant that may thrive in Africa may not be able to grow and survive in France, and vice versa. Our way of thinking, working, and living in America may not work in Africa, and vice versa.

Let’s use America and Mali (West Africa) as country examples, and fruit trees as metaphors for each country to help explain why international development is often ineffective. For the sake of example, we can consider Mali as a mango tree and America as an apple tree. If a society of apple trees wants to help develop a society of mango trees, those from the apple tree society should start by closely examining their intentions and the appropriateness of their potential decision and action.  If after this initial reflection the apple tree society still desires to develop the mango tree society then they must first try and understand the world from the perspective of a mango tree. What are the components, inner workings, and historical origins of the mango tree? What does the mango tree need to grow and thrive? What are the unique capabilities and aspirations of the mango tree? The apple tree society must first understand the dynamics of the mango tree and the conditions it requires to develop, achieve well-being, and bear its unique fruits.

If a society of apple trees wants to help develop a society of mango trees, those from the apple tree society should start by closely examining their intentions and the appropriateness of their potential decision and action.

Unfortunately (in general), developers from the apple tree society often see the world through apple tree lenses. This is no fault of their own. They are of course a product of their environment and historical context, as is the mango tree society. It is said that a flower can never truly understand its a flower because it is too busy and all-absorbed in the process of being a flower. The flower’s lens is thus biased by its own being and it cannot see itself as clearly as a human might see it with a different lens, allowing for a truly outside perspective. This explains why developers from the apple tree society often bring tools, techniques, and even goals based from their own perspective and nature to attempt to influence societies of a distinct perspective and nature. The appropriateness and efficacy of any ensuing development interventions is what is at stake here.

It is said that a flower can never truly understand its a flower because it is too busy and all-absorbed in the process of being a flower. The flower’s lens is thus biased by its own being…

For example, if the apple tree society comes with fertilizers that work well to grow apple trees (i.e. strategies and project designs) and scaffolding (i.e. capacity building and incentives) to prop up their branches to look and act more like apples trees, it may temporarily fool the development workers and their host country leaders into thinking “progress” is being made because some of the mango trees appear to be growing and showing signs (i.e. indicators) of looking and acting more like to apple trees. To celebrate this appearance of progress there are typically ribbon cutting ceremonies with VIPs and the press is invited to celebrate what looks like iterative development.

In reality though, any similarities to apple trees amongst some of the mango trees is likely because the developers from the apple tree society used scaffolding and other external tools, techniques, and incentives to influence the mango trees to appear more like apple trees. But as we all know, cosmetic beauty fades with time, particularly when the Botox injections end (i.e. project funding runs out). Generally, about five years after project closure, few mango trees from project intervention zones still look like apple trees, most have gone back to looking like the mango trees they truly were – many unfortunately even sicker than before being blessed with any intervention. And then we ask, “Why are these expensive and seemingly altruistic development efforts not having the kind of sustainable impact we want?”

Generally, about five years after project closure, few mango trees from project intervention zones still look like apple trees, most have gone back to looking like the mango trees they truly were – many unfortunately even sicker than before being blessed with any intervention.

It is appropriate to ask some questions in response to this question. What progress can there be if you try to develop a society you do not fully understand, particularly if you don’t even understand your own society yet… or even yourself? Where are the philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists in aid today to help navigate such a highly complex, sensitive, and nuanced human-centered change endeavor? Have aid workers been allotted the time necessary for the deeper reflection and research required before intervening into a foreign society and culture – an extremely complex and daunting task?

Where are the philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists in aid today to help navigate such a highly complex, sensitive, and nuanced human-centered change endeavor?

If you really want to grow healthy mango trees you need to first learn about and develop a sincere appreciation for mango trees. What conditions are required for them to grow best and thrive? You cannot help a mango tree to grow into the best version of itself if you impose your own dreams and visions of what you want its fruit to look and taste like. Mali will never be an apple tree and it shouldn’t be. Effective development efforts in Mali will facilitate it to grow into the healthiest and strongest mango tree it was destined to be. Only then can Mali be its own example of a unique manifestation of developed society, very different from other developed societies – perhaps more akin to #Wakanda than New York City or Paris.

Effective development efforts in Mali will facilitate it to grow into the healthiest and strongest mango tree it was destined to be. Only then can Mali be its own example of a unique manifestation of developed society, very different from other developed societies – perhaps more akin to #Wakanda than New York City or Paris.

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Perspective-taking and learning to walk in the shoes of another is a good first step towards progress and mutual respect in this world. Seeing the “other” as not so different from you while at the same time being fascinated by and appreciative of identifiable differences is crucial. The North-South development model (i.e. first world country “aids” poorer third world country) needs to be replaced by a more South-South friendly relationship (i.e. equal standing) based on sharing and learning from each other as equals rather than one group “developing” the other in some sort of self-righteous model of global change. Development in the future should be two-way development. All countries and cultures can help develop each other by learning and exchanging on a platform of mutual interest, respect, and egalitarianism. Development is not and should not be a one-way process. Humility, open-mindedness, and a willingness to let go of any self-conception as the “exceptional helpers of the world” will be required. The apple tree society will have to let go of its dreams of having apple trees growing all over the world and learn to love and support the diversity of the lavish multi-colored fruits emerging from the mystery of creation. There is a divine harmony in diversity absent in monotony.

The North-South development model (i.e. first world country “aids” poorer third world country) needs to be replaced by a more South-South friendly relationship (i.e. equal standing) based on sharing and learning from each other as equals rather than one group “developing” the other in some sort of self-righteous model of global change.

At the end of the day, America might be able to teach Mali a little more about the particulars of material progress, but Mali may have some non-material life lessons to share with America – at a minimum, equally important. For that which is given from the one perceived as less, may in fact be more. Shakespeare once said, “When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry.”

About the Author
A philosopher and comedian at heart.
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